Category Archives: G. K. Chesterton

Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?

serious07Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.

In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.

PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2

LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?

LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!

The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link
  2. 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Truth Is Stranger than Fiction, But It Is Because Fiction Is Obliged to Stick to Possibilities; Truth Isn’t

Mark Twain? Lord Byron? G. K. Chesterton? Humphrey Bogart? Leo Rosten? Tom Clancy?

faucet11Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation by Mark Twain about the implausibility of truth versus fiction. Here are four versions:

1) Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
2) It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must be credible.
3) Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!
4) The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.

Would you please explore this topic and determine what Twain actually said? Some versions have been credited to humorist Leo Rosten and top-selling author Tom Clancy.

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifteenth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. Thus, Twain was the actual crafter of the remark given above. Over the years many variant phrasings have evolved.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 15 Epigraph), Quote Page 156, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

The Person Who Never Makes a Mistake Will Never Make Anything

Theodore Roosevelt? Albert Einstein? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Smiles? Josh Billings? Mr. Phelps? G. K. Chesterton? Robert Smith Surtees? Joseph Conrad? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

samsmiles11Dear Quote Investigator: Mistakes are unavoidable in the life of an active and vital person. Several adages highlight this important theme:

1) A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.
2) The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
3) A fellow who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.

Many famous names have been linked to sayings of this type including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This is a large and complex topic. Below is a summary that presents a list of expressions that fit into this family together with dates and attributions:

1832: He who never makes an effort, never risks a failure. (Anonymous)

1859: He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. (Samuel Smiles)

1874: The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits. (Josh Billings)

1889: A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything. (Attributed: Mr. Phelps)

1896: It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. (Joseph Conrad)

1900: The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything. (Solid Attribution: Theodore Roosevelt)

1901: Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything. (Anonymous)

1903: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy)

1911: The fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either. (Anonymous)

1927: Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. (G. K. Chesterton)

1936: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Flawed Attribution: Benjamin Franklin)

1969: The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing. (Anonymous)

1993: The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing. (Weak Attribution: Will Rogers)

1995: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. (Weak Attribution: Albert Einstein.)

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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The Plays of Shakespeare Were Not Written by Shakespeare but by Another Man of the Same Name

Mark Twain? Oxford Student? Frenchman? Lewis Carroll? Schoolchild? G. K. Chesterton? Israel Zangwill? Charles Lamb? Benjamin Jowett? Aldous Huxley? Anonymous?

quill08Dear Quote Investigator: Determining the accurate provenance of famous plays and poems can be a contentious topic. According to tradition the composer of the Iliad and Odyssey has been referred to as Homer, but some question this ascription and wonder whether there may have been more than one “Homer”. The authorship of the works ascribed to Shakespeare has also been challenged for many years. Candidates for the Bard’s secret identity have included Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Christopher Marlowe. The fractious arguments about origins have inspired a family of jokes. Here are two examples:

The Homeric Poems were not written by Homer, but by another person of the same name.

The plays of Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare but by another man of the same name.

These remarks have been connected to well-known humorists and literary figures, e.g., Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton, Lewis Carroll, Israel Zangwill, and Aldous Huxley. Would you please explore the history of these expressions?

Quote Investigator: Because these jokes can be stated in many ways they are difficult to trace. The earliest strong match known to QI was published in “The Spectator” of London in 1860. A news item by an unnamed writer discussed the possible discovery of a new planet and then made a joke about Shakespearean authorship theories: 1

This rivals the new discovery about Shakespeare,—that the well-known plays and poems were not by William Shakespeare, but by another person of the same name!

An analogous quip about Homer was published in a periodical in Oxford, England in 1874. Celebrated writers, such as Mark Twain and G. K. Chesterton, did employ versions of this joke, but they did not claim coinage. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1860 January 14, The Spectator, Volume 33, The “New Planet” and Its Discoverers, Start Page 37, Quote Page 38, Column 1, Published by Joseph Clayton, Wellington Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Art, Like Morality, Consists of Drawing the Line Somewhere

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? Anonymous?

hands10Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following remark on the webpage of an educator:

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.

The phrase was attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I have not been able to find it in his oeuvre. It was listed on websites like Goodreads and Quotationspage where it was ascribed to Wilde, but I know that websites with massive compilations of quotations are often packed with misinformation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote this statement.

In the 1920s the English author, journalist, and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton penned a column in “The Illustrated London News”. In May 1928 he wrote a passage containing a strongly matching expression. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Some say that art is unmoral; and some of these arts are very unmoral. I may not have described them here in the correct conventional terms; but then I do not think that art is unmoral. Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

The positions of the terms “art” and “morality” have been switched when compared to the modern instance provided by the questioner. The phrase “drawing the line” wittily referred simultaneously to an artist physically drawing a line on a canvas and figuratively creating an artwork on a subject with moral implications.

This was the earliest strong match located by QI, and QI believes that G. K. Chesterton should be credited with the phrase he wrote and not Oscar Wilde.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1928 May 5, Illustrated London News, Our Note Book by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 780, Column 1, London, England. (Gale NewsVault)